Dr Kay Macleod from Lewis (pictured above in her office in 2013) has been named November “Scientist of the Month” by the Chicago chapter of the Association of Women in Science.

Kay first became interested in science as a school pupil.

Now, she’s one of America’s top cancer research scientists, running her own lab at the University of Chicago in Illinois, and receiving regular recognition from her peers.

“Everyone appreciates validation of what they are doing, so obviously I’m happy that I received this recognition, and particularly pleased that it came from younger women scientists who will be making up the next generation of leaders in our field,” says Kay.

The Association of Women in Science is a global organisation which advocates for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). They describe Kay as being well-known “for her pioneering research into autophagy and mitochondrial dysfunction in cancer,” and someone who has “created a pathway to success that is uniquely her own.”

Kay, an Associate Professor, set up the Macleod Laboratory, part of the award-winning Ben May Department for Cancer Research, in 2001, and works on ground-breaking cancer research that focuses on what happens with the disease at the molecular level, particularly in breast, liver, and pancreatic cancers.

As her department description outlines, one of deadliest aspects of cancer is metastasis, the multi-step process by which cancer cells escape the confines of the primary cancer site, and travel in the circulation to other parts of the body where they can lodge and grow out as secondary tumours.

 Multiple factors play into this, including how tumour cells respond to stresses such as nutrient deprivation and altered cellular attachments. These stresses activate a process called autophagy, and it is this that Kay and her team and are currently focusing on: understanding and clarifying the role of autophagy in tumour growth and progression to metastasis. 

Autophagy, she explains, “is an ancient process, conserved in evolution, that cells require to turn over large protein structures in the cell, like damaged mitochondria or protein aggregates or indeed bacteria or viruses that get into cells.”

“This form of “garbage removal” keeps the cell clean and healthy, and importantly the constituent parts are recycled to make new cell mass. Autophagy plays a role in numerous diseases, but our interest is in its role in cancer, where we have – amongst other things – shown it plays a role on tumour cell migration and invasion during cancer metastasis.”

After finishing school in the Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh, Kay studied molecular biology at the University of Edinburgh in the Eighties, before going on to get her Ph.D. at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow. Post-doctoral research at the Pasteur Institute in France and Massachusetts Institute of Technology followed, before the opportunity arose to work in Chicago.

“There have been numerous scientific highlights, including the one I mentioned above showing a role for autophagy in tumour cell migration, but also showing for the first time that a protein we are interested in is required for turnover of mitochondria (the energy factor of a cell), amongst other discoveries,” says Kay of her career so far.

“But on a personal level, career highlights would be obtaining tenure in 2009; speaking and chairing the major symposium on Autophagy in Cancer at the annual American Association for Cancer Research meeting in 2016; becoming programme chair at our Cancer Centre here at UChicago; and then most recently I was elected as President of the Cancer Biology Training Consortium (CABTRAC) for 2019, the national body of cancer research trainers.”

“Fundamentally, I love making new discoveries – seeing things that have never been seen before, like showing that inhibiting autophagy stopped metastatic tumour cells migrating.

“But I also love training young researchers to be more rigorous and more adventurous scientists, to watch their excitement when they make that first discovery of their own.

“Some of my first trainees are now professors in their own right at other universities and that is very satisfying.”

(This article has been updated since first publication to make clear that Kay was educated at Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh.)